There is an assumption, particularly among black communities, that children and adolescents are immune from mental health challenges. This misconception is informed by a false notion that mental health challenges only happen to those with adult responsibilities, such as paying bills. And since children’s only responsibility is to attend school, and seeing that they live bill-free in their parental homes, there is this expectation that they are not supposed to experience mental health challenges.
It is this type of problematic thinking that causes children to withdraw, engage in destructive behaviours and make them emotionally vulnerable, which can lead to suicide, as we have witnessed as a nation in our children. Last year, a nine-year-old child committed suicide, which left many of us in shock, and recently a 16-year-old teenager took her life. For the most part, children feel inadequately supported and misunderstood in their homes and schools, especially during their adolescence phase.
As parents, family members, teachers and communities we need to be cognisant that having responsibilities alone doesn’t predispose you to mental health challenges. There are various factors that influence the mental health state of children and adolescents that could lead to mental illnesses, such as depression. For example, growing up in dysfunctional families, such as single-headed parent homes, which is the norm in Namibia as opposed to having both parents, could lead to mental health struggles - not that living with both parents guarantees a healthy upbringing all the time. Also, most children in their homes are either exposed to or experience some form of abuse, whether it be physical, emotional or verbal. At school and on playgrounds, some children constantly have to fight off bullies, while others are under immense stress because of academic performance expectations that are placed on them by schools or parents. Not to mention the effects Covid-19 restrictions have on children’s mental wellbeing.
Therefore, it is far-fetched to think that children and teens are exempted from mental health problems when reality indicates otherwise.
Research shows that depression along with other illnesses such as bipolar, anxiety and disruptive behaviours is mostly common during childhood and can affect children as young as three years old. In the United States, one in 33 children is diagnosed with depression and one in eight adolescents. Additionally, depression is regarded as a leading cause of death among children but is treatable.
If detected early and proper treatment is given, there is a low risk of relapse but later detection could mean the illness can continue well into adulthood. To diagnose depression, a trained clinician, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, needs to evaluate the case and advise the best treatment method from various options.
Symptoms to look out for in children and adolescents:
• Feelings of hopelessness, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, frequent sadness, and crying.
• Irritability, anger outburst, play that involves aggressive behaviour directed towards self or others.
• Preoccupied with death talks, and suicide, a pattern of dark image paintings or drawings.
• Lack of enthusiasm, loss of energy, withdrawal from friends and activities.
• Loss of appetite, change in sleeping patterns - sleeping too much or too little.
• Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches and stomach aches.
• Loss of concentration, poor performance in school works.
• Increased sensitivity to criticism or negative experiences; young children may act younger than their age (regression)
Important to note is that children and adolescents are still in their developmental stages and haven’t mastered the resilience to cope with most challenges life throws at them, compared to adults. Therefore, sensitivity is needed when dealing with these groups, especially in how we interact, treat and behave around them.